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Can Jeremy Corbyn win as an independent?

Jeremy Corbyn can take inspiration, once again, from the 1970s. Credit: Getty

March 18, 2024 - 7:00am

The Sunday Times has reported that Jeremy Corbyn will stand as an independent candidate at the next general election. The details are foggy, but activists are rumoured to have approached printers about leaflets. At the very least, it seems Corbyn is testing the waters.

If the former Labour leader does try to hold his seat as an independent, it will not be an easy task. In all of the party’s history, excluding full-blown party splits in the 1930s and 1980s, there are just four ex-Labour MPs who won their seats as independents against Labour candidates. Three were elected in the early 1970s — just as Corbyn was cutting his teeth as a young Labour activist. They offer valuable lessons for his potential independent candidacy.

In 1970, the Merthyr Tydfil Labour Party overwhelmingly voted to deselect its “cantankerous” MP of 35 years, S.O. Davies, on the grounds that he was too old. The octogenarian MP retorted, “I am physically fit,” and defiantly stood as an independent. Voters remained loyal to Davies, but the local Labour Party may have had a point. Just 20 months after his re-election, Davies was dead.

Before the February 1974 election, Blyth Labour MP Eddie Milne was narrowly deselected by his local party after calling for an investigation into corrupt practices by party councillors in the area. Milne, who said he had “perfected the work of helping constituents to a fine art” and had risen through the trade union movement, held the seat.

From these two rare successes, Corbyn can take heart. Like Davies, Corbyn has represented the same constituency for decades. Like Milne, he has a reputation for being a diligent constituency MP. We do not know yet whom Labour will select in Islington North, but they would be wise to choose someone who is a better fit than Milne’s challenger, a posh QC called Ivor Richards.

But Corbyn’s independent candidacy is not just a product of eccentric local party disputes. It is part of a battle for the soul of the Labour Party. Is Keir Starmer’s party a broad enough church to tolerate figures like Corbyn or Diane Abbott? Arguably, Starmer is the least pluralist leader in Labour’s history, willing to impose a rigid ideological discipline not even Hugh Gaitskell, Neil Kinnock or Tony Blair would have conceived.

In this framing, Corbyn should consider Dick Taverne, who was deselected for factional reasons. To secure a new personal mandate, Taverne resigned as an MP in 1973 and stood in the by-election as “Democratic Labour”, winning a 13,000-vote majority. The by-election had forced attention on Taverne as an individual (“Return Taverne”) and avoided being overshadowed by the usual general election dichotomy of electing a Labour or Conservative government.

Taverne held Lincoln in the February 1974 election by just over 1,000 votes. In the October election of that year, he was defeated by a Left-wing, Eurosceptic Labour candidate named Margaret Jackson (later Beckett).

Taverne, 95, is now a Liberal Democrat peer. I spoke with him last year on the 50th anniversary of his by-election, and he regretted trying to spin his personal victory into a larger campaign against Labour. In the October 1974 election, he allowed other candidates to stand as “Democratic Labour” candidates, but he told me “it was a great mistake […] Of course it was silly, I mean they weren’t going to have a chance of getting elected and it simply meant that I had to spend some time going around [their constituencies] which undermined my campaign in Lincoln itself.”

Corbyn might be almost uniquely well-disposed to win Islington North as an independent candidate, but he should be cautious about investing his energy in a larger party challenge to Labour. Doing so could detract scarce resources, like leaflets and activists, from an all-out battle in Islington to more quixotic candidates elsewhere. If Corbyn wants to survive as an independent, he must remember that all politics is local.


Richard Johnson is a Lecturer in US Politics and Policy at Queen Mary University of London.

richardmarcj

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Martin M
Martin M
3 months ago

Who exactly would miss him if he didn’t get re-elected?

N Satori
N Satori
3 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

All those not-very-active “grass roots” activists who joined Labour on Len McCluskey’s ÂŁ3.00 easy subscription plan and voted Corbyn in as leader of the party – perhaps?

Martin M
Martin M
3 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

I suspect they have mostly left the Party by now.

Mike Cook
Mike Cook
3 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

The antisemites.

Martin M
Martin M
3 months ago
Reply to  Mike Cook

Well, yes. That is a fair point.

Simon Cornish
Simon Cornish
3 months ago

He’s always been an Independent. Within the Labour Party he never knowingly followed the party line; his voting history is testament to that!

AC Harper
AC Harper
3 months ago

If he stands and wins then that is democracy.
But if I look through a very cloudy crystal ball he could be a Member of Parliament while the Conservative Party implodes through uselessness and the Labour Party schisms into several factional parties. And that would be democracy too.

N Satori
N Satori
3 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Democracy indeed, but that will confirm our suspicions about Islington – a breeding ground of fashionable Woke prejudice.

2 plus 2 equals 4
2 plus 2 equals 4
3 months ago

Its tough for independents to win but its certainly possible and his totemic status for Labour’s left wing gives him a foundation above and beyond his strong reputation as a constituency MP. His long-term, unequivocal support for the Palestinian cause also plays extremely well with Labour’s support at this time.
Before the uptick in hostilities in the middle east I would have put his chance at around 30-70. Now I’d have him at about 60-40.

Pedro the Exile
Pedro the Exile
3 months ago

Of course he will try to retain his seat-who else is going to bung him ÂŁ93k + expenses + pension for doing….err….

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
3 months ago

Wouldn’t agree with him on many things but having worked with him on an issue where he was very supportive, I hope he retains the seat & wish him well.

jules Ritchie
jules Ritchie
3 months ago

It’s terrifying how these rejects can keep coming back to haunt us, Corbyn, Trump, and so many others.